Substance use in Brazilian migrants in the UK: the role of acculturation

This month’s contribution comes from Martha Canfield, who is a researcher at the National Addiction Centre, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College in London, UK. In this blog, she describes her research about substance use of Brazilian migrants in the UK, and how acculturation is associated with this behavior.

I am taking the opportunity to describe here some of the findings from my PhD research which explored the extent to which the process of acculturation is placing Brazilian migrants in the UK at risk for substance use1. Although this study looked at a population of Brazilians aged 18 and over residing in the UK, it presents findings that have the potential to be translated to other migratory groups, younger populations of migrants and minority ethnic groups, and to different contexts (e.g. countries).

The study background

We investigated the extent to which changes occurring as a part of the acculturation process to the UK are placing Brazilian migrants at risk of substance use problems. To do this, we explored patterns of substance use amongst Brazilians residing in the UK and Brazilians residing in Brazil using a mixed methods approach. First, we looked at whether there was a difference in the patterns of substance use according to country of residence. Next, we looked at an established set of predictor factors for substance use (personality, motivation for drinking, resilience, and mood) across both countries. Lastly, we explored whether variables associated with acculturation (e.g., integration, assimilation, length of residence, discrimination, threat to cultural identity) affected substance use behaviours in Brazilians residing in the UK.

Our findings

Overall, Brazilian participants in the UK tend to use substances slightly more often, when compared to their Brazilian counterparts. Specifically, more participants in the UK reported greater levels of poly drug use and binge drinking.

With respect to factors associated with alcohol use, we found that male participants in Brazil were more likely to drink alcohol than women. As this effect was not found amongst those residing in the UK, we assumed that Brazilian women in the UK are starting to become more open towards drinking in the face of a more permissive British culture regarding female drinking.

We also found that there is a general positive expectation with regard to alcohol in the Brazilian culture. However, whilst in Brazil this positive expectation is associated with social motives (e.g. drinking to celebrate a special moment with a friend), in the UK, drinking is only socially motivated when it involves binge drinking. It appears from this that alcohol has a slightly different role for those Brazilians in the UK and for those in Brazil. It might well be that for Brazilians in the UK rapid consumption of large amounts of alcohol is associated with being with others. If this is the case, it is possible that Brazilians in the UK are being influenced by British attitudes regarding when, where and how much to drink – for example, binge drinking is often present at social gatherings. Moreover, the findings suggest that the use of alcohol takes on different meanings across both countries. While in Brazil getting drunk is often seen as a consequence of a fun night out with other people, in the UK it seems that consuming high levels of alcohol is a prerequisite of enjoying a ‘night’.

As none of the demographic and psychological predictor factors for illicit drug use found in the Brazil sample predicted substance use behaviours in the UK sample, we assumed that acculturative outcomes were the strongest factors of influence. This is supported by the significant effect that threat to cultural identity had on drug use behaviours in Brazilians in the UK. Broadly speaking, threat to cultural identity refers to the generally unavoidable psychological distress experienced by members of the acculturating group in dealing with more than one cultural identification2. In our study, findings also suggested that the stress caused by not knowing where one belongs can occur independently of high contact with British culture. It might be that in an effort to meet their personal and social needs, Brazilian migrants might choose to socialise with, and adopt cultural elements from other migrant groups who share similar experiences to them in the UK.


This study has generated information about the profile of members of the Brazilian community at risk of developing substance use problems, as well as information about the most commonly used substances and motivations behind substance use. This evidence can be used by local governments in areas with large numbers of Brazilian migrants, to aid them in working with community-based organisations (e.g. Casa do Brasil in Londres) and non-governmental organisations in creating and delivering high-impact prevention programmes. This type of programmes can also be developed in partnership with associations and communities of people from other Latin American backgrounds, as they hold great cultural and social similarities with Brazilian people and are also largely excluded from public health services in the UK3. Importantly, in addition to addressing substance use problems, approaches focusing on these multi-agency partnerships will also strengthen social capital in these communities as it will directly support social cohesion and build resilient communities and individuals.

Interventions can fully benefit from the findings related to threat to cultural identity. Studies on minority ethnic adolescents, for example, have shown that stressors associated with cultural identification have been linked to a decrease in family contact and an increase in conflict behaviour. Specifically, parent-adolescent conflict is exacerbated when parents (usually first generation migrants) keep strong ties with their native culture whilst their children become interested in learning about and following the norms and attitudes of the host society. Due to parents’ difficulties in understanding the culture to which their children are being exposed, these youths are more prone to conflict with family members and to be influenced by deviant peers4,5. By addressing stressors associated with the difficulty of dealing with more than one cultural identification, programmes aimed at tackling substance use in members of minority ethnic groups will be supported by evidence that generates ways of developing much broader frameworks in terms of appreciating the combination of factors that affects people’s lives. Planning interventions in this way, offers initiatives aimed at overcoming simple ethnicity-focused approaches.

About the Author:

My name is Martha Canfield and I am a researcher at the National Addiction Centre, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN), King’s College London, UK. I am a mixed methods researcher focusing on the relationship between psychosocial factors and substance use; cultural influences on substance use, and family dynamics around having a relative who misuses drug(s). At the National Addiction Centre, I am involved in primary research exploring substance use and its relationship with intimate partner violence as well as working on a psychosocial intervention aimed at preventing blood borne virus infection in people who inject drugs. You can read more about my work by following this link:


  1. Canfield, M. (2016). Predictors of substance use in Brazilian migrants in the UK: The role of acculturation. Unpublished PhD thesis. University of Roehampton. []
  2. Berry, J.W., Kim, U., Minde, T.,& Mok, D. (1987). Comparative studies of acculturative stress. International Migration Review, 21, 491–511. []
  3. McIlwaine, C, Camilo, JC, & Linneker, B. No Longer Invisible: the Latin American community in London (May 2011) []
  4. Bamaca, M. Y., & Umana-Taylor, A. J. (2006). Testing a model of resistance to peer pressure among Mexican-origin adolescents. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 35, 631–645. []
  5. Unger, J. B., Cruz, T. B., Rohrbach, L. A., Ribisl, K. M., Baezconde-Garbanati, L., Chen, X., … & Johnson, C. A. (2000). English language use as a risk factor for smoking initiation among Hispanic and Asian American adolescents: evidence for mediation by tobacco-related beliefs and social norms. Health Psychology, 19(5), 403-410. []

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